The NBA Draft Lottery has been in place dating back to 1985, when the New York Knicks ended up beating out six other teams in the lottery to draft Georgetown Center Patrick Ewing.
The lottery was instituted to try to stop bad NBA teams from tanking near the end of the season in order to lock up the first overall pick in the draft. From 1966 to 1984, the teams that finished with the worst records in each conference had a coin flip to determine which team would draft first.
In 1989, the NBA adopted a weighted lottery system for the non-playoff teams. Back then, the odds were still pretty good that a relatively good team would end up with the top pick, or one of the top three picks. The best non-playoff team had one chance out of 66 to get the top pick, and the worst non-playoff team had 11 chances.
In 1994, the system changed again, giving even better odds to the worst teams, and tougher odds to the better teams.
In ’95, there were two more teams added to the NBA, so they bumped up the number of teams in the NBA lottery to 13 (then up to 14 in 2004, when the Charlotte Bobcats joined the league).
14 Improbable NBA Draft Lottery Picks Going to Lucky(?) Teams
Below, we discuss the most improbable picks going to teams in the NBA Draft Lottery over the course of the system’s 21 seasons.
1. Baron Davis, PG, UCLA 1999 – Charlotte Hornets
With a 26-24 record (due to a lockout the previous season), the Charlotte Hornets were the best team of the non-playoff teams that year, and they had just 5 in 1,001 chances of getting the third overall draft pick. They missed the NBA Playoffs by one game.
2. Enes Kanter, PF/C, Kentucky – 2011 Utah Jazz
(1.01% chance for 2nd pick)
It’s just painful to see that the Jazz in 2011 were the least likely to ever win a draft pick with these odds, and they spent it on Kanter, who has seen some good — and plenty of meh — years.
3. Chris Webber, PF, Michigan – 1992 Orlando Magic
(1.51% chance for 1st pick)
This lottery was the one that changed everything. Orlando was coming off a pretty good season, after they won Shaquille O’Neal in the previous year’s NBA Draft Lottery. So it was a shocker to see them get the first pick again, even though they had a 41-41 record and were the best team to not make the playoffs. Literally, they had one ping-pong ball out of 66 in the hopper!
4. Derrick Rose, PG, Memphis – 2008 Chicago Bulls
(1.70% chance for 1st pick)
The Bulls had 17 chances out of 1,001 to get the first pick, after a 50-loss season made them the ninth-worst team in the NBA. Interestingly, they passed on both Russell Westbrook (fourth overall) and Kevin Love (fifth overall).
5. Andrew Wiggins, SG, Kansas – 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers
(1.70% chance for 1st pick)
Yet another shocker when the Cavs won the top pick – which might have helped entice LeBron James into returning to his old ballclub. Not that he wanted to play with Wiggins, but because it represented a trade piece. Once Bron-Bron signed, the Cavs traded Wiggins to Minnesota in a three-team deal that brought back Kevin Love. (Philly was the third team in that deal.)
6. Gary Payton, PG, Oregon State – 1990 Seattle Supersonics
(3.03% chance for 2nd pick)
This one was a big surprise to me, as I hadn’t remembered the Sonics were pretty good the season before. They brought in Payton to play with a 21-year-old Shawn Kemp. Something we forget all about, though, was that Hank Gathers was considered the top pick for this draft before he collapsed and died on the court in a game against UC-Santa Barbara. Had Gathers lived, perhaps the Nets take him with their first pick, and Seattle takes Derrick Coleman who was definitely considered a stellar talent.
7. Tyson Chandler, PF, High School – 2001 L.A. Clippers
(3.38% chance for 2nd pick)
Washington passed on Chandler for C Kwame Brown with the first overall pick. The Wizards also missed out on Pau Gasol (third), Joe Johnson (10th), Richard Jefferson (13th), Zach Randolph (20th) Gerald Wallace (26th) and Tony Parker (29th).
8. Kenyon Martin, PF, Cincinnati — 2000 New Jersey Nets
(4.44% chance for 1st pick)
This draft was considered a smoking turd after K-Mart went first overall. He had a decent NBA career, but mostly after he left New Jersey for Denver. (It’s crazy to think he just retired last year after playing 11 games with the Knicks.)
9. Otto Porter, SF, Georgetown — 2013 Washington Wizards
(4.79% chance for 3rd pick)
It’s just three years in, but my guess is the Wizards wish they hadn’t won this pick, and they could’ve taken someone like C.J. McCollum, Michael Carter-Williams or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
10. Kevin Durant, SF, Texas — 2007 Seattle Supersonics
(5.30% chance for 2nd pick)
Picked one spot after Greg Oden, Durant was coming off a great freshman year at Texas, and it’s crazy to think that he actually did play one whole season in Seattle before they moved to Oklahoma City.
11. Evan Turner, SG, Ohio State — 2010 Philadelphia 76ers
(6.03% chance for 2nd pick)
It’s tough to blame the 76ers for some of their picks, as Turner was really considered one of the top guys in his class. The Sixers missed out on DeMarcus Cousins (fifth), Gordon Hayward (ninth), Paul George (10th) and Eric Bledsoe (18th).
12. Christian Laettner, C, Duke – 1992 Charlotte Hornets
(6.06% chance for 3rd pick)
Charlotte has been an NBA Draft Lottery darling, beating the odds several times for high draft picks. Not only did they get Baron Davis against all odds in 1999, but they also got Laettner despite having just a 4-in-66 chance. And that ’92 pick came just one year after they won the lottery in 1991 with a 10-percent chance, to win the chance to pick Larry Johnson first overall.
13. Andrew Bogut, C, Utah – 2005 Milwaukee Bucks
(6.30% chance for 2nd pick)
The Bucks were just the sixth-worst team that year, but the odds are so heavily favoring teams with worse records, this was still a big upset. How does Chris Paul go fourth overall in this draft? FOURTH!?!
14. Darko Milicic, C, Serbia — 2003 Detroit Pistons
(7.20% chance for 2nd pick)
Is there a team in NBA history that wished they didn’t win this pick in hindsight more than the Pistons? The Pistons got the second pick because they had traded Otis Thorpe to the Grizzlies in 1997 – six years before this draft! That means that Vancouver traded the pick to Detroit, but it was Memphis (they moved there in 2000) that lost that pick.
After the Cavaliers took LeBron James first overall, Detroit took Milicic, who really was considered a top-three pick. It’s tough to judge, but then again, that 2003-04 Pistons team won the NBA Championship that season. (Darko had a ring long before Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. (And he still has one more ring than Carmelo Anthony.) All of which the Pistons could have reloaded with if they passed on Milicic.)
Darko ended up being nicknamed “The Human Victory Cigar” because when he got into the game, it meant the win was already in the bag, much like when Red Auerbach would break out a stogie when a Celtics blowout was officially in hand.
Those are the 14 teams that had the least likely odds of winning a top-three pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. We wonder who’ll be added to this list in coming years. The 2016 NBA Draft Lottery will be held on Tuesday, May 17. The biggest longshot would be the Chicago Bulls, who have a 0.5% chance at the top pick, and a 1.80% chance at a top-three pick.
Anfernee Hardaway/Chris Webber Photo Credit: Nathaniel S. Butler, Getty Images